Monday, May 10, 2021

Getting started on China (Folktales of Chinese minorities 1. - Han)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Note: I am aware that he Han are not a minority; they are the majority people of China, making up more than 90% of the population. I wanted to start with them anyway, because the book I previously read for China in the challenge did not contain any Han tales at all. 

Chinese Folk Tales
Louise Kuo & Yuan Hsi Kuo
Celestial Arts, 1984.

This book contains Han and minority tales, 35 total, out of which 21 are Han, and the rest are Yao, Zhuang, Mongolian, Tibetan, etc. I will include those in upcoming posts, and in this one I'll be focusing on the Han stories.
I chose this book because many folktale collections reference it, and I came across the title so much it felt like a classic I should read. It has an introduction that talks about Han and minority cultures and storytelling traditions, and every story comes with its own introduction that puts it in cultural and historical context. It mostly treats minorities with respect, although there are some very questionable comments in some of the notes (such as minorities overcoming their "primitive superstitions". Um.). There are a few black and white illustrations.


The tale of the first storyteller was an obvious highlight for me. It was about a prince who was born blind and abandoned in the woods. Animals and fairies raised him and taught him the art of storytelling. Later on he refused to return to court, traveling the world instead and sharing pieces of his pipa (lute, see left) with people of other crafts.
The story of the official and the hermit was also quite interesting. They were good friends in their youth, and when they met again many years later,both believed that the other one's profession was more meaningful...
There was also an amusing and clever story about a boy who eavesdropped on the new year offerings and prayers of people, and found out many of them were praying for disaster so that they could grow rich. The boy tricked them all, and publicly shamed them for their greed. In another story a wise magistrate decided an argument about a rich man's will by putting the punctuation in the correct place.


The role of the clever maiden was played by a clever wife here, while the kind and unkind girls were replaced by kind and cruel women. The latter were rewarded (or punished) by a sparrow. I was also familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant from India, and the tale of the wise magistrate who gives a poor man the purse a rich man accused him of stealing. There was, once again, a tale about why the sea is salt (because a salt-making magic item sank into it). 
From trickster tales, the story of the ungrateful animal made an appearance, featuring a scholar, a wolf, and a wise old man.

Who's next?
I plan on going by number of population, so the Zhuang people are next.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

I read a folktale collection from each country in the world, and this is what I learned

Historic moment: I finished my Following folktales around the world reading project! I started it almost exactly five years ago, in early 2016. The idea (inspired by this challenge) was to read a folktale collection from every single country around the world.

I can't believe I made it!

Let's see the numbers first:

I read folktales from 200 countries.

I started with China and arrived in Mongolia in 5 years and 1 month (I started blogging in English a little bit later in the challenge, hence the discrepancy in the posts).

I read more than 10,284 folktales (these are the ones I counted, but there were books that contained multiple tales per chapter). 

There were 12 countries from where I could not find complete books. In these cases I read articles of folktales, or looked up stories on the Internet (Barbados, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Chad, Djibouti, North Korea, Belarus, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mozambique, Tuvalu, Uruguay). If I happen to find books for them later on, I'll include them (recommendations welcome). I did find tales from all of them in the end; Burundi was the hardest one, I could only locate one single myth.

For three countries I read epics, because I could not find folktale collections (Guinea, Kosovo, Senegal)

The number of tales by continent:

Europe: 3859

Africa: 1642

Asia: 1542

Australia and Oceania: 1211

Central America and the Caribbean: 1124

South America: 756

North America: 150

I read the most stories from these individual countries:

Hungary (756) (one of our country's first folklore collections)

Papua New Guinea (602) (half of the 1001 Papua New Guinean Nights)

Dominican Republic (304) (each tale came with several variants)

Italy (200) (Calvino's classic collection)

Latvia (164

Australia (157) (I'd like to circle back for more)

Honduras, Suriname, Argentina (150/country)

You can find the complete list of countries and posts here

What did I learn from all this?

Tricksters are everywhere (even North Korea)

I barely read any collections where tricksters did not appear. They seem to be the most universal archetype of folktale characters around the world; where there are stories, there are tricksters, bringing their favorite pranks and antics over and over again, from tar dolls to tug-o'-wars to cunningly exchanged punishments. It's a trickster's world out there.

The most popular tale types are not the ones Westerners would think

The Western (mostly European) folktale canon has its big classics and favorites, mostly based on Grimm and French fairy tales: Cinderella, Snow White, etc. Many people tend to think these are the most popular stories around the world - but after 200 countries I see things differently. Cinderella is not even in the same ballpark as some other tale types you wouldn't think of right away. I was not keeping an exact count, but here are some of the most common stories that kept popping up over and over and over again:

The Kind and Unkind Girls (or boys) (see: Frau Holle) (ATU 480)
Magic Flight (you probably know it as Master Maid) (ATU 313)
Animals running a race (Tortoise and the Hare) (ATU 275)
Extraordinary helpers (commonly known as The Flying Ship) (ATU 513)
The gift of the little people (where a friendly person is rewarded for participating in the fairies' song, but a mean one is punished) (ATU 503)
Aladdin (a.k.a. the lost magic item) (ATU 561)
And, obviously, tricksters. 

You can find parallels in surprising places

I was sometimes stunned to find almost identical tales separated by great cultural and geographical distances. A dragon story popped up in Switzerland and Bhutan, but nowhere in-between. A witch tale appeared in Kiribati and Angola. I found a legend in the Philippines that I knew as a Native American story. The list goes on and on, but the point is: stories can travel incredible distances, and they often pop up independently from each other in very similar forms. Human imagination is a wonderful thing.

Some countries are luckier with folklore collections than others

In the case of some countries I had a very hard time finding a folktale collection in any of the languages I read (English, Spanish, and Hungarian, but I can also read Italian and German very slowly). History left its mark on folklore collections. Nation-building movements valued (and sometimes took advantage of) tradition, while war, colonization, and genocide often wiped out stories as well as people. In the case of some smaller countries it was a matter of sheer luck: the birth of one person who fell in love with stories, and spent their life collecting and preserving them, kicking off a folklore movement in a time when traditional tellers still carried the old tales. Hungary in particular is lucky in this regard. You walk into any used book shop, and you will find shelves of folktale collections. Our collecting started shortly after the Grimms, and our struggle for national independence boosted folklore studies early on. Not all countries are nearly this lucky. 
(Wherever I could support new publications and collection projects, I tended to buy books with this in mind.)

There is an endless supply of folktales, but not all are equally fun

As a storyteller, I have a subjective opinion of tales: there are stories I fall in love with, and others that are forgettable or don't really speak to me. There are types I love more than others, and obviously the ones I noted along this journey were the ones that I personally found the most fascinating. This challenge proved what I already knew about folktale collections: if a book has more than two stories I fall in love with, it is an exceptionally good book. There were a few collections that were especially memorable for the high number of amazing stories, but usually there were one or two tales per country that really stuck with me. This is nothing out of the ordinary, it's just the human nature of the storyteller. This is why we have to read a lot to expand our repertoire.

There is more!

I could talk a lot more about this challenge, and my experiences and adventures with it. If anyone is interested, hit me up :)

Where to next?

I have been wondering for a while about what I was gonna do once this challenge ended. And now, here we are. I was always aware that political borders don't often mean cultural borders, and that there are many rich cultures and traditions that I skipped along the way. I want to make up or these omissions, and start a new challenge where I read minority and indigenous folktales around the world! Right now, I'm feeling like starting with Chinese ethnic groups, but I'd also love to circle back to Siberian indigenous peoples, as well as indigenous groups of North and South America and Australia, and some European minority groups as well. 

Stories just go on and on...

Monday, May 3, 2021

A to Z Reflections: Tarot Tales

I can't believe April is already over! It feels like the whole month consisted of two Saturdays. Or maybe it's just me. A to Z 2021 is done, and even though I only had half the posts written ahead of time, I managed to finish all of them. Yay!

I ended up selecting folktales and legends for 46 cards of the tarot deck (which is 78 cards total). I might finish the rest at one point. I am especially proud that I managed to include stories from six continents, although with more research the deck could get even more diverse.

You can find the page with all my Tarot Tales posts here. I had a little over 11,700 hits in April, which is pretty good. The most popular posts were A, C, B, E, and P. Every post received somewhere between 30 and 10 comments, from visitors who kept returning all through the month. I really enjoyed the visits and the comments, thank you all!

I could not visit as much or as often as I usually do. Pandemic fatigue has been hitting me hard, sometimes I can barely get up, and I had writing deadlines. I'm still catching up. I really enjoyed following several blogs this year, here are some of my favorite themes (in no particular order):

Herbal medicine embedded in a science fiction story (Tea, Sigh, Create)

Imaginary places A to Z (Black and White)

Dante's Divine Comedy (My Magick Theater)

Ludic Lexicon (Deborah Weber)

Greek mythology (with excellent book recommendations) (The Great Raven)

DC characters and their background stories (The Confusing Middle)

How to write technobabble for science fiction (Storytellergirl)

Poetic styles from A to Z, with original poetry examples (The Versesmith)

Steampunk Mythology (Alicia Hawks)

WWI (Sarah Zama)

Ichigo Ichie (My Ordinary Moments)

Thank you all for visiting, commenting, and for writing such interesting things! You made this month awesome even in the middle of the pandemic fatigue. :)

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Crocodile island (Following folktales around the world 200. - East Timor)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!


Legends and poems from the land of the sleeping crocodile
Cliff Morris
H.C. Morris, 1984.

A small, but super fascinating volume. It is a bilingual edition (Tetum-English), containing mirror translations, so it was only a hundred-odd pages to read. The tales have all been collected by people who were born and raised in East Timor and then moved somewhere else (Australia, Portugal, etc.). Each story came with a short introduction about the teller. The English translation was a bit odd at times, but it was still an enjoyable read.
The book starts with short poems that seem like proverbs, and each of them is explained (which is lucky, because I would not have drawn "don't sweat the small things" from "pigeon hiccups in the jungle, fruit remains"). 
By the way, in case you were wondering, this is where East Timor is located:


According to the origin myth of the island, Timor was originally a young crocodile, saved by a human boy from death, who turned into an island as a thank you to people. Crocodiles appeared as helpers or heroes in multiple stories, and only attacked people who deserved it.
The tale of Bui Iku was haunting: a girl was locked in a house built in a mango tree by her six brothers, and only the youngest cared for her. When she got pregnant from a divine prince her five brothers killed her, but her lover brought her back. Their child was born among the stars, and returned to earth to punish the evil brothers, and reward the kind one.
There were two legends about how Christianity arrived to Timor, both from the perspective of the native people. They claim the "holy man" of the white people threatened to drag the whole island to Portugal if they did not convert; he put an anchor into the seashore and pretended to pull it with his ship. In that moment, the earth shook, and everyone was scared into converting... While the story was told as a positive thing, it does carry some of the pain over colonization. 
There was a fascinating twist on the "stolen bride" tale type: a boy spied on the seven daughters of the Sun, and tried to kidnap the youngest to make her his wife (this is a common folktale motif). She, however, fought back: she flew up into the sky with her attacker, burned him, then threw him down.


The most interesting connection was the story of Joao the Gambler (John in English). The hero was taken to a castle by a giant bird he had to feed on the way (he used his own flesh for the last few bites). It was  Master Maid story where the giant's daughter helped the hero fulfill tasks, and turn into various things during a magic flight scene. It was a common tale type, but with nice local colors: one of the "impossible tasks" was to find mangos out of season.
The tale of the sacred machete also reminded me of European tale types; here the hero was helped by three giants, and revived by them when his enemies killed him. There was also a Cinderella story (Daughter of the sun), and a magic tablecloth type tale (Bui Kiak and Mau Kiak).
It is not very surprising to see European connection, given the colonial history of the island. However, all the familiar stories merged nicely with the local culture, flora and fauna. In addition, burning the skin of animal husbands (snakes and eels) was an actual solution in these tales, while in European stories it is usually presented as a mistake.
There was a version of the magic fishhook story that I knew from Japan: in the story of the sick princess a man lost a hook borrowed from his brother, and had to descend into the ocean to find it. He managed to locate the hook in the mouth of the Sea King's daughter.

Where to next?
We are done! I'll take a short break, write a summary of this adventure, and start a new challenge...

Friday, April 30, 2021

Tarot Tales: Z is for Zero (the Fool)

Welcome to the 2021 A to Z Blogging Challenge! My theme this year is Tarot Tales. I am making a selection of folktales, legends, and other traditional stories that correspond to tarot cards. Storytelling and tarot go well together. Do other stories come to mind? Let me know in the comments!

This is the last day of this year's A to Z Challenge - and, fittingly, we are closing this theme with the very first card of the Major Arcana!

The card: The Fool

Meanings: If you see the 22 cards of the Major Arcana as a continuous story, the Fool is the character who sets out on the quest. The Fool is about beginnings, jumping in with both feet, setting out on a journey with no expectations, come what may. The Fool is spontaneous and free, full of potential. deliberately stepping (not falling!) off a cliff. They are still innocent, trustful, and optimistic, and they love having fun. They have a lot to learn, but they are sure it will all work out in the end.

Selection process: I already knew which folk character I would choose for this card before I even started the challenge.

The story: Jack seeks his fortune

Origin: Appalachia

Jack is the main hero of hundreds of Appalachian folktales, transported from Great Britain and Ireland over the centuries. You probably know him from the beanstalk story, but as a trickster-fool-hero, he also appears in many other tales in many ways. My personal favorites are Lady Featherflight (where Jack takes up service with an evil giant), and Jack and the Varmints. The latter has several variants, all of which are part of the Valiant Little Tailor tale type (ATU 1640). Jack kills seven flies with one slap, and he thinks himself such a great hero that he starts advertising he can "kill seven at a whack." The King immediately hires him to get rid of various beasts prowling his forests: a giant boar, a vicious unicorn (!), and a man-eating lion. Jack takes up the job, then tries to get out of it, gets into all kinds of trouble, but his luck always holds out and he manages to defeat the beasts in hilarious ways.
Jack is not a fool because he is dumb, although he does dumb things sometimes. He is actually fairly clever - but also easygoing enough to set out into the world again and again to seek his fortune. And the rest is history. 

Sources & notes: Read Richard Chase's classic collection of Jack tales here, and Donald Davis' Jack tales here. There are also many other books to pick from. 

We have circled back to the beginning, and that's the end of this year's A to Z of Tarot Tales. Thank you all for visiting, commenting, and cheering me on! See you on Monday for Reflections!

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Tarot Tales: Y is for Youth (the Pages)

Welcome to the 2021 A to Z Blogging Challenge! My theme this year is Tarot Tales. I am making a selection of folktales, legends, and other traditional stories that correspond to tarot cards. Storytelling and tarot go well together. Do other stories come to mind? Let me know in the comments!

For the last time this month, I am doing court cards, four instead of one. We have already met the Kings, Queens, and Knights - it is time to meet the Pages! They are all about youthfulness, new beginnings, and potential. 

Page of Cups
This Page is full on unbridled creativity. They are open to new possibilities, follow their intuition and their feelings, they are curious about everything, and they love surprise discoveries. This card is about new creative endeavors, and seeing the beauty in new things around you. 

From a very old book, but it's a beautiful story. Thashira, daughter of the Queen of Fountains, is in love with colors. She collects flowers, berries, different kinds of dyes, and paints her own skin as well as the rocks around her home. She admires anything colorful. The Sun falls in love with her and creates colorful sunsets. The Wind also falls in love and brings rain to make colorful flowers. Thashira chooses the Sun, and as she rises into the sky to meet him, she becomes the rainbow.

Page of Swords
This Page is looking for knowledge. They want to learn new things, come up with new ideas, explore new theories, and find new ways to express all these. Since Swords are related to intellect and communication, this Page also has an affinity for wording or explaining things in innovative ways.

This story features two very clever brothers who understand the language of birds and are "clever at drawing deductions from the smallest signs" (hmm, where have I heard this before?). They set out to see the world and exercise their skills. They solve a mystery about a lost cow, get framed for murder, and then dazzle a magistrate with all kinds of clever observations and deductions - including the one when they tell him who his biological father is.

Page of Wands
This Page is about restless energy. They are ready to go, starting out on a journey, full of inspiration and creativity. They want to discover the world, find new things, and go places.

The Ocean-Jumping Shoes (Hungarian folktale)
One of my favorite Hungarian tales. It's about a girl who wishes for ocean-jumping shoes so she can travel the world and see all there is to see. When her father finds her the shoes, she sets out on all kinds of adventures, including a visit to the Glass Mountains and an encounter with an evil witch. The brave and clever girl rescues a prince and his sisters, and goes on to many other adventures in her magic shoes.

Page of Pentacles
This page is about material, practical things: learning new skills, starting new business opportunities, finding a new profession, a source of income or wealth. They are actively beginning to turn ideas into tangible things, practicing, learning, exploring.

Archie's besom (Scottish Traveller tale)
One of my favorite tales from legendary Traveller storyteller Duncan Williamson. Archie is a poor boy who makes a living from doing odd jobs with his brother. One day they meet an old Traveller who makes brooms from heather, and Archie decides he wants to learn his craft. He gets to work with great determination and enthusiasm, asking questions and experimenting with making his first broom. The end result is a bit strange: Archie's besom is huge, much bigger than any broom should be. But Archie doesn't despair, rather he cheerfully sets out to sell it. As luck would have it, he meets a very strong-boned witch who has been looking for a broom big enough to carry her. She happily buys the broom, and pays Archie with a magic coin.

Which Page do you feel closest to? Have you started any new things lately?

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Tarot Tales: X is for X of...

Welcome to the 2021 A to Z Blogging Challenge! My theme this year is Tarot Tales. I am making a selection of folktales, legends, and other traditional stories that correspond to tarot cards. Storytelling and tarot go well together. Do other stories come to mind? Let me know in the comments!

Today I once again post about four cards instead of one: the Tens (X's) of the Minor Arcana. Tens are the highest non-court cards, and thus they represent the completion or fulfillment of the symbolism of their entire suit.

Ten of Cups
This one is a lovely card (although I struggle to differentiate if from the Nine of Cups...). It is about joy, happiness, love - living a whole and harmonious life filled with nurturing and meaningful relationships. Cups represent water and emotion, therefore this is all about nice warm and fuzzy emotions.

A young man sets our from a cold and desolate village to bring the Bird of Happiness to his people. As he climbs higher and higher in the mountains he encounters various monsters that threaten him, and demand payment for letting him pass. The payment is always killing or hurting someone else from the village, so the young man repeatedly refuses, and suffers the consequences instead. Finally, blinded, starved, and bruised, he finds the Bird of Happiness. The bird heals him and carries him down to the village, singing a beautiful song that makes the sun shine, the fields bloom, and everyone's heart fill up with joy.

Ten of Swords
This is a baaad card. It is about deep pain, grief, loss, and despair. It is about hitting rock bottom, going through your darkest hour, being betrayed, hurt, abandoned. Lots of hard, painful feelings. The silver lining of this card is the proverbial "nowhere to go from here but up." 

The Nameless Son of Urizhmag (Ossetian Nart saga)
One of the most heartbreaking stories I know. The great hero Urizhmag kills his own child in a freak household accident. The child's spirit begs the ruler of the Underworld to let him return to the land of the living, to go on one adventure with his grieving father. He receives permission, and returns to his father's village. Urizhmag does not recognize him, but he decides to go on an adventure with the brave young warrior anyway. When they return, the boy has to go back to the Underworld; his mother realizes too late who he was. She runs after him, begging the sun to stand still on the horizon, giving her a few precious moments to catch a glimpse of her child before he disappears again.

Ten of Wands
As an overachiever, I relate to this card a lot. It is about taking on too much, and struggling to carry all the responsibility. It is about things weighing you down. This card usually signals that you have to learn to say no, and choose your battles carefully. The workload is too much, and something's gotta give.

The Magic Hen (Hungary)
There are many legends in Hungary about a creature called a lidérc, a kind of spirit that can be both helpful and dangerous. In one story, the lidérc takes the shape of a black hen that never stops working. It brings its owner whatever she desires - gold, silver, diamonds, food, etc. - and keeps bringing more and more of it until it is told to stop (or until the house fills up). If it doesn't get a new task, it takes the owner's soul to Hell. It is very hard to get rid of: the only way to kill a lidérc is to give it a task it cannot fulfill.

Ten of Pentacles
Another nice card. It is about long-term wealth, success, and financial security. Basically it represents achieving a place in life where you can provide safety and comfort to your own family - whether they are blood relations or otherwise. It is about an abundance of material resources that create a secure and nurturing environment. 

A version of the King Thrushbeard tale, but with a better outcome. A pasha's wise and clever daughter refuses to marry anyone she doesn't love. When she rejects a very high ranking suitor, her father grows furious and orders her to be married to the most wretched man in the city. Such a man (a fire stoker from a public bath) is selected, and married to the girl, then they are both kicked out of the palace to fend for themselves. However, the young woman, Uns-ul-Juloos, does not panic. She starts befriending her new husband, little by little, and he turns out to be a kind, trustworthy man. She sells her jewelry and begins renovating the small hovel they live in. She also helps her husband find a new job, and slowly but surely their lives turn for the better. By the end of the tale, with the help of a friendly jinn, they become a wealthy and respected couple. They live in their own palace comfortably, and even manage to make peace with the girl's parents and family.

These cards all represent great highs and lows. How are you feeling about them?